Project Gotham Racing 3 retrospective

Life in the past lane.

Until I dug it out again earlier this week, I had completely forgotten that one of my favourite things in Project Gotham Racing 3 is the loading screens. Each one highlights a move that will earn Kudos, the in-game driving points that make PGR stand out from other racers, but for some reason the local descriptions for each activity are just dumped onto the same screen. This means that I got to spend many happy hours passing the time between races by reciting terms like 'drafting' in a range of languages. Rebufo. Aspiration. Scia. Windschatten.

I suspect this was just Bizarre Creations having a bit of fun - in pleasant contrast to the humourless Forza Motorsport series - but I suppose it might also have reflected the fact the game was finished in a hurry. When I went to see the developers a couple of years after PGR3 came out, they freely admitted they ran out of time getting it ready for the Xbox 360 launch. That's why, for example, the Nurburgring races at the end of the career mode give up their medals so easily; each of them takes around 10 minutes to complete, and there just wasn't time to balance them.

Nearly eight years on, those rough edges are clearly evident, while graphics that seemed so futuristic in 2005 now feel flat and coarse, with a strange crosshatching effect visible on textures in the middle distance and trees that wouldn't look out of place in Minecraft. The cars are still beautiful, of course, especially the Ferraris - 105,000 polygons is more than enough to capture a Maranello outline - but if you pull the disc out and replace it with PGR4, the change is considerable.

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Bizarre loves Ferraris. There's one on the front of all four PGR games.

Somewhere in the middle of a console generation that PGR3 helped to start, though, that lack of time before the game's release started to dovetail with the passage of time that followed it, and the effect is rather likeable. PGR3 feels more focused than the sprawling PGR4 - a game that effectively had two career modes - as the lack of polish gives it a stripped-down quality. It's a game only interested in one thing: folding yourself into a Recaro bucket and putting your foot down.

PGR3 is naked speed and tactility now, with a sensuous in-car view. The judder of the dashboard and the way the left pillar moves around in shot to reflect the driver's shifting weight is exactly the kind of immersion we're always told should be the promise of the future. Bizarre nailed it in 2005. The steering is twitchy and agitated, which heightens your senses, and in driving challenges like Time vs. Kudos - where you have to perform slides to elongate the seconds between checkpoints - you can almost feel yourself under the wheel arches straining at the last few inches of asphalt between you and the next gate.

There is an internal schism between driving priorities in PGR3 and the Kudos system - the cars want to play and the game rewards them for that moment to moment, but this doesn't always translate into podium places - and it doesn't matter. PGR4 would later correct this imbalance by bridging the gap with extra Kudos elements and steering the whole game further away from Turn 10's Forza titles, but PGR3 isn't about the big picture so much as the small one; it's about picking up a Cone Challenge, where you weave through gates trying not to break your combo, and spending hours doing it over and over until there are no gaps left in your flow.

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I used to be a bumper cam man, but PGR3 changed me forever. Sorry Codemasters.

Flow is right. As you dance around the obstacles in a CTR Yellowbird, you're scarcely conscious of all the squirts of acceleration or the gasping shifts of gear, but they all stir something essential that has you pausing and restarting whenever you threaten to fall short of perfection. Occasionally your eye wanders to the ever-lengthening list of Kudos accomplishments stacking up on the right side of the screen - screaming brake feint, overpower, cone gate, cone gate - but it barely registers. I know someone who used PGR3 to give up smoking; he locked himself in a room for three days and PGR3 took him out of the world. When he opened the door again, he'd broken the back of it.

More than any other racing game I can think of, PGR3 is crying out for a New Game+ mode. I would probably have to delete my profile's savegame to start again and I'm not sure I can bring myself to erase all those times and platinum medals. But even dipping into it now for kicks is wonderful. All the online stuff like Gotham TV and the Tournaments has long since between switched off - save for peer-to-peer races - but what's left is the skeletal frame of one of my favourite launch titles ever.

Pick it up right at the start, cut in hard at the Houses of Parliament corner while Mussorgsky's Night on Bald Mountain plays on the stereo, swing past the apex sideways, straighten up and blast off towards Birdcage Walk. Tell me you're not smiling. Time has worked in PGR3's favour over the years, elevating it to the bare essentials rather than reducing it, and that feels like a fitting legacy for a game where driving unseats you from temporal concerns. Rumours of another PGR game coming down the line from a new developer may be wishful thinking, but if anyone ever does pick up Bizarre Creations' baton, they will be competing with driving games that have reached beyond the road into time immemorial.

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